Surprise move

What Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to not seek re-election means for schools

PHOTO: Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to drop his reelection bid has serious implications for several big public education initiatives in Chicago and for district leadership, from the membership of the appointed school board to the district’s handpicked CEO, Janice Jackson.

Emanuel announced he’s not seeking a third term Tuesday morning at City Hall. The news came just hours after he rang an opening-day bell at Bronzeville Classical, a new selective-enrollment school that opened on the former site of Hartigan Elementary.

Emanuel’s legacy is closely tied to schools, as his remarks Tuesday indicated. Ticking off his accomplishments, he said, “What matters most in public life is four more years for our children, not four more years for me.”  

Since taking office in 2011, Emanuel’s public record on education has hit both highs and lows. He steered the system out of a $700 million budget deficit that fall, to a near-balanced budget this school year, all while extending the school day citywide, instituting full-day kindergarten, forging a better relationship between the public school district and City Colleges, and pushing for a universal pre-K plan — a $175 million, four-year undertaking that is in the initial rollout phase this fall.

Though universal pre-K has enjoyed bipartisan support in cities and states, his successor could presumably scuttle the early-stage effort, which builds upon funds from the federal government, the state, the city, and Chicago schools.

“It’s a significant expenditure, so it will and should be a topic of conversation,” said Robin Steans, the chair of the Steans Family Foundation and the former director of the education policy advocacy group Advance Illinois. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat.)

But, Steans added, the public is starting to understand that investments in early education could pay substantial dividends. “There’s no way you can look at the [kindergarten-readiness] data for Chicago or any other part of the state and think that our investment in early childhood is where it needs to be.”

Alongside Jackson, a former principal who took the top job in January, Emanuel has basked regularly in recognition from a Stanford University researcher, Sean Reardon, who issued a report last fall identifying Chicago as the fastest improving urban district in the country. But the mayor’s school policies also faced serious backlash, chief among them his decision, in 2013, to close 50 schools and displace more than 12,000 students amid declining enrollment. The mass closing was traumatic for neighborhoods, students, and teachers, according to a report released in May by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, and had at best a neutral impact on student achievement in some areas, and a negative impact in others.  

And, after a revolving door of school district leaders with deep flaws — including Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is now in federal prison — it took Emanuel nearly his entire tenure to find a school chief who had the respect of rank-and-file educators.

In Jackson, a former principal who served as No. 2 under another flawed chief, Forrest Claypool, the mayor found someone who could navigate the murky politics of a school-choice district, spar with a prickly union, and size up troubling gaps in equity and pledge ways to tackle them.

Even last week, the mayor referenced the Stanford report when joining Jackson at Josephine Locke Elementary, in the Montclare neighborhood, to announce slight gains in math on a standardized test known as the NWEA. Explaining the test scores, Jackson called him the “genius” behind many initiatives.

The respect has been mutual. But as mayoral appointees, Jackson and the school board she reports to are vulnerable now that the election has shifted. The Chicago Teachers Union lost no time Tuesday saying it would likely choose a candidate to back based on who’s willing to call for an elected school board.

It’s time to “let the people of the city of Chicago decide about school leadership,” said Jesse Sharkey, who will be confirmed as president of the union Wednesday.

He sidestepped the question of whether the union would support Jackson once Emanuel’s predecessor was in place. “Janice Jackson is an educator so in that regard there are things happening in schools that are just plain old common sense.” But, Sharkey added, “the bar has been set so low,” and an elected school board would be the first step to raising it.

Emanuel’s decision to drop out of the race for the February election does not mean there will necessarily be a change in CEO, said Steve Tozer, a recently retired professor who mentored Jackson at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education. He is the leader of several Illinois education policy initiatives. 

“Any mayor will want the school system to succeed,” said Tozer, “and Janice [Jackson] is the best bet right now.”

“Count me among those who are nervous,” said Steans, about the potential for change at the top. “While there’s always room to improve and review is healthy, in a world where CPS has been making steady and significant gains over a sustained period of time, I worry about the disruption that comes with big changes.”

Peter Cunningham, who worked for former Chicago schools chief and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both in Chicago and Washington, D.C., said that the local civic and philanthropic community generally supports Jackson, which makes replacing her a risky move for any new mayor. “We’ve never had a fully homegrown product of CPS — someone who is a parent, teacher, administrator, a former principal  — runnings schools in the modern era.”

The district has enjoyed more financial stability this year, with principals receiving budgets in the spring and fewer layoffs. That stability comes despite several seismic policy changes in the wake of scandals involving special education and student sexual assault at the hands of adults.

When students returned to school Tuesday, they were greeted at some schools with posters near the front doors that spell out the district’s new procedures for reporting sexual misconduct.

Instability at the top of the district contributed to its lapse in handling student sex cases, according to a preliminary report released in August by former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey. Regarding turnover of CEO and network chiefs, she wrote, “This turnover makes it difficult to instill and maintain productive policies and procedures, stable systems independent of any person, and cultures of compliance.”

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.